The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Morgan Shiver, Contributor • June 20, 2024

George W. Bush paints world leaders’ portraits

George W. Bush has contributed 30 portraits to his “Art of Leadership” collection at the George W. Bush Presidential Library. (Courtesy of

During his presidency, George W. Bush often invited other world leaders to his ranch in Crawford, Texas to escape from the pressure of the White House and let them see where he was really from. After leaving office, he has adopted a hobby of painting many of these same world leaders.

An exhibit of these paintings, called the “Art of Leadership,” has opened in his presidential library on the SMU campus. The 30-piece collection displays hand painted portraits of world leaders that Bush met during his presidency.

The new exhibit Bush said he “felt comfortable painting them because I had really gotten to know them.” Thirty-six percent of the portrait subjects visited his ranch and 70 percent of the guests returned to Crawford, Texas again.

He was inspired to begin painting by Winston Churchill’s essay: “Painting as a Pastime.” As it turns out, “you can teach an old dog new tricks,” laughed Laura Bush in the exhibits’ video. Bush took painting lessons from former SMU graduate Gale Norfleet about once per week. She graduated in 1972 with a master’s in fine arts from Meadows School of the Arts.

The temporary exhibit opened at the beginning of April and will end on June 3. It begins with an introduction video from Laura and George W. Bush. The next room displays a self-portrait and a portrait of his father, George Bush. The rest of the exhibit houses the other 28 portraits with some of the gifts given to Bush by the subjects.

The paintings unveil many things about Bush’s relationships with the other leaders. The portrait of the Dalai Lama gives him a soft, warm expression. Bush was fond of him and said, “I painted him as sweetly as I could.” He visited Bush five times during his presidency: four times at the White House and once at the Bush residence in Dallas. The Dalai Lama gave him a Tibetan butter lamp and a traditional Tibetan greeting scarf.

The public has mixed reactions about his portraits. A docent at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Nancy Giles, said she has “heard the entire gamut: from ‘he is the most horrible painter I have ever seen,’ to the people in awe of
his work.”

A woman passing by his portrait of Hamid Karzai said, “This picture isn’t as good, and I don’t know why. It looks like he didn’t spend as much time on it.” Bush met Hamid Karzai 10 times in the United States and twice in Afghanistan. He also gifted him a bronze sculpture of Bush with two Afghan schoolchildren, to thank him for the support of education in Afghanistan.

On the other Alastair Sooke, an art critic at The Daily Telegraph, said that the portrait style of the subjects wearing suits caused them to lack the intimacy that he thinks Bush was trying to portray. Sooke said that copying online photographs of the politicians gave them the persona of a politician instead of a friend.

A museum visitor, Winnie Underwood, thinks that Bush’s best paintings are his self-portrait and the painting of the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, because they look the most recognizable.

An SMU sophomore Dan Mulford thought, “The exhibit was very well done. The paintings were simply displayed just enough information about each one. It brought the attention straight to the artwork.” Mulford said his favorite piece is the portrait of Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic.

Havel’s portrait shows more personality than many of the others and “it looks like he spent a lot of time on him,” said Mulford. “Especially since Havel recently passed away, I believe President Bush wanted to honor his friend, who was not only the president of the Czech Republic, but a famed poet, author and playwright.” It is the only portrait that is not one a solid background; Havel is painted in front of a
colorful bookshelf.

All of the portraits are vertical, except for Paul Kagame the President of Rwanda. His expression is serious and cold through his shadowed face. The former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, has a zoomed portrait. It is the only one that does not include the top or side of the subject’s head.

Bush said he understands that the value of his artwork is not as high as his signature, which is located on the backside of each canvas. Last Thursday was the one-year anniversary of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, and over 437,000 people have visited it over the past year.

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